There are the seeds of a coherently harrowing drama about European sex traffic in Teresa Villaverde's Transe, but you have to dig deep to find them. Part road movie, part abstract essay and - as the title suggests - part free-floating hallucination, the latest film by the Portuguese writer-director will mystify most audiences, and bore even those with a yen for ultra- rarefied European art cinema.
Sales potential is minimal, though festivals (the film played in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes) with a high tolerance of the arcane might offer Transe safe harbour.
A multi-lingual drama in Russian, Italian, German and Portuguese, Transe kicks off in St Petersburg, where a young single woman named Sonia (Moreira), who appears to be Russian but insists that she isn't, visits her young son, smearing his blood on her face as a souvenir before taking a coach to the West in search of a new life. En route, she briefly buddies up with one of the film's few fully-limned characters, a young Russian woman (Droukarova), who cheerfully intends to put herself on the bride market.
Arriving in Germany, via the Czech Republic, the film shifts from fuzzy impressionism into a tighter dramatic mode, as Sonia gets a job cleaning in a motor workshop. Then a Russian at her workplace tricks her into going with him by car to be handed over to another man, who imprisons and rapes her.
Sonia has fallen into the hands of sex traffickers, and her immediate fate is to be sold to a singularly bleak Italian brothel - where, because it's this sort of film, she spends long minutes staring blankly under revolving mirrorball lights, to the sound of glum vintage pop.
Villaverde blows any dramatic logic sky-high when Sonia is delivered to an elegant Italian villa to be the pet of a rich man's mentally disturbed son. Thereafter, things make little sense at all, and the film fizzles out in an extended series of codas, each more inscrutable than the last.
At the start, the film takes a dauntingly long time to provide any kind of recognisable narrative: for much of the first 10 minutes, sketchily differentiated characters exchange enigmatic comments about ice, blood and war in Russian, partly in voice-off.
When the film finally settles into shape, its mix of realism and moody expressionism evokes a similarly poetic, ominous tone to that of poetically-inclined European directors such as Fred Kelemen, Sharunas Bartas and Philippe Grandrieux.
But increasingly, it becomes evident that Villaverde is following a winding path of her own. She seems blithely unconcerned whether audiences care to follow her, refusing even to explain such elementary questions as where Sonia is actually from and why she ends the film speaking perfect Portuguese.
Oppressively sombre photography is occasionally leavened by memorable single images, particularly of ice and snow, and Ana Moreira's haunted presence is intermittently compelling. But its uncommunicative style means that many viewers will want to snap out of Transe way before the final head-scratching moments.